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04 November 2015

The Big Baby Experiment

At Babylab, scientists monitor electrical activity in an
infant's brain.  Wes Fernandes/Nature
"In 2014, Johnson received £2.3 million (US$3.5 million) from a trio of foundations to establish a toddler lab at Birkbeck [in London], in which children aged 18 months to 3 or 4 years old will be attached to wireless forms of electroencephalography (EEG), NIRS and eye-tracking technology as they walk around, play and interact with other children. The aim is to understand the brain during toddlerhood..."

The big baby experiment
by Linda Geddes, nature.com, 
4 November 2015

At Babylab, scientists monitor electrical activity in an infant’s brain.

Baby Ezra is sitting on his mother's lap and staring at the computer screen with the amazement of someone still new to the world. The five-month-old's eyes rest on a series of pictures: three dancing women, four black circles, then a face among random objects. Ezra studies the screen with fascination — although now and then, his attention wanders. He lets out a gurgle, and moments later, a short cry. He is chewing a sock.

Below the screen, a box is shining infrared light at his cornea, and then capturing and processing the reflected light to work out the direction of his gaze. Behind a curtain, postdoc Jannath Begum Ali checks the data streaming in on her monitor. This set-up is part of a sophisticated experiment to understand the early development of the human mind in the Babylab at Birkbeck, University of London. The scientists here will closely monitor Ezra's brain and behaviour at visits over the next two and a half years.

Oblivious to his important role in science, Ezra furrows his brow into a frown. What happens next is apparent only to his mother, who turns him around and checks his behind. With just half of a planned 15-minute observation complete, Ezra has defecated. At that point, everyone takes a break.

How do you get into the mind of a human being who cannot speak, does not follow instructions and rudely interrupts your experiments? That is the challenge embraced by scientists at the Babylab. The brain undergoes more change during the first two years of life than at any other time: consciousness, traits of personality, temperament and ability all become apparent, as do the first signs that development could be drifting off course. But this period is also the most difficult to explore, because many of the standard tools of human neuroscience are useless: babies will not lie awake and still in an imaging machine, and they cannot answer questions or do as they are told. Researchers have measured infants' interest and attention mostly by tracking their gaze — but even this method has been criticized as crude.

“There are many studies where someone tries to prove that the baby understands goals, causality, number — and in 99% of those studies the only measure they look at is a change in looking time,” says Jerome Kagan, a psychologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The field is now becoming more sophisticated, thanks in part to the Birkbeck lab. Scientists there have pioneered techniques such as infant near-infrared spectrometry (NIRS), which measures brain activity by recording the colour, and therefore the oxygenation, of blood. They are also trying to strengthen conclusions by combining multiple techniques. Among the handful of baby labs around the world, this makes the London one stand out. “They are doing research on babies using every single technique you could imagine,” says Richard Aslin, an infant-behaviour researcher and director of the Rochester Center for Brain Imaging in New York.

The lab has used such tools to reveal a series of 'firsts' about the infant mind: that babies prefer to look at faces that are looking directly at them, rather than away from them; that they respond to such direct gaze with enhanced neural processing1; and that changes in this brain response may be associated with the later emergence of autism — the first evidence that a measure of brain function might be used to predict the condition2. In 2013, the Babylab started the flagship project of which Ezra is part: an effort to study infants from 12 weeks old who are at high risk of autism spectrum disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), alongside a control group, in order to detect more early signs of these conditions and find behavioural therapies that might help. “It's an exciting, and emerging, field,” says Mark Johnson, director of the Babylab.

And, like its subjects, the London lab is growing up. In 2014, Johnson received £2.3 million (US$3.5 million) from a trio of foundations to establish a toddler lab at Birkbeck, in which children aged 18 months to 3 or 4 years old will be attached to wireless forms of electroencephalography (EEG), NIRS and eye-tracking technology as they walk around, play and interact with other children. The aim is to understand the brain during toddlerhood, the time when children start to appreciate the difference between self and other, complex language develops and long-term memories are first laid down. “In child development in general, but also in our brain-development work, the terrible twos are a major black hole,” Johnson says...

Continue reading:
http://www.nature.com/news/the-big-baby-experiment-1.18701

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